One of the dirty little open secrets in Maryland is that...


June 29, 1992

One of the dirty little open secrets in Maryland is that bars pay off on electronic poker machines, which over the years have become a primary source of income in the tavern industry. (Many bars earn more from the machines than from the sale of spirits.)

The payments generally are made under the table, lest an undercover officer be at the end of the bar. Every other year or so a newspaper rediscovers this scourge of criminality, and police occasionally raid offending establishments. One tavern in Hampden actually had its machines smashed by eager police not long ago. But on all sides it is an exercise in hypocrisy.

So why not legalize payoffs on electronic poker? The bars then could continue to earn revenue from the machines, while the state and subdivisions could profit, too.

The model is, of all places, Montana. That Western state has 800,000 people, 3.2 million cattle and 12,400 poker and keno machines, all paying off legally. Montana legalized live and electronic poker gambling in 1985 and keno gambling nine years before that. (Keno is a game resembling bingo.)

Taverns are permitted up to 20 machines. They're required to purchase a permit for gambling. Those fees are split evenly between the state and the subdivisions. A 15 percent tax on the gross income of the games is split one-third to the state and two-thirds to the subdivisions.

Casino gambling raised $20.5 million in tax revenue last year (in a state without a sales tax) and $23 million in the first three quarters of fiscal year 1992.

By most accounts, above-board gambling on the limited basis it is allowed has kept illegal gambling to a minimum. So far, Montana has rejected other forms of gambling such as slot machines and payoffs on other card games such as blackjack.

And though such famous strips as Great Falls' 10th Avenue South are now lined with casinos with such names as "Nevada Sam's," most small-town taverns in this sparsely populated state have perhaps two poker machines and a quiet "live" game on Friday and Saturday nights.

Gambling also has helped revive some struggling towns along the state's "hi-line," the east-west highway from North Dakota to Idaho. Bars in these towns are crowded on weekends by Canadians enjoying the games of chance and much cheaper U.S. prices for everything from booze to Pampers.

A bar in one of these towns posts the rules for its Friday night "live" poker. Rule No. 1: "Absolutely no foreign language allowed during play." Rule No. 2: "No talking at all during play."

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